A bill to establish the crime of “Unlawful Traffic Interference” is being considered by Missouri lawmakers. A person would commit the offense by intentionally blocking passage of a vehicle on any roadway.
The practice becomes a felony if it takes place on an interstate highway, and the penalty escalates further if more than one person is involved in an unlawful assembly.
House Republican Nick Marshall of Parkville, who’s sponsoring the measure, says the penalties are necessary to discourage the behavior.
“We have to be clear that we cannot allow folks to stand on interstates and on highways and block traffic, and, for all intents and purposes, unlawfully detain and imprison folks in their cars.”
Interstate highways in St. Louis and Kansas City have been blocked in recent years by protests over racial issues, including the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014.
Marshall presented his proposal before the House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee. It allows for misdemeanor charges against anyone who deliberately obstructs traffic by walking, standing, sitting, lying or placing an object on a roadway.
The crime would elevate to a class E felony if the person commits the offense a second time or if the action took place on an interstate highway. Such crimes carry a maximum penalty of 4 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
The measure makes any gathering of more than one person on a street, highway of interstate highway an illegal assembly if the intent is to block traffic. This act would be classified as a class D felony, with a maximum punishment of 7 years in prison and a $10,000 fines.
House Democrat Bruce Franks of St. Louis sits on the committee which heard the proposal. Franks is a community activist who took part in protests which blocked interstate highways in St. Louis after the shooting of Michael Brown.
During the hearing, he noted that he would have committed a felony under the measure. Franks contends protests are meant to make people feel uncomfortable.
“To make people uncomfortable, to let people know that’s it’s not going to be business as usual, and actually make your voice heard” said Franks. He thinks the measure would punish protesters who would dare to make others feel uncomfortable.
“As long as it’s not making everybody else uncomfortable, it’s O.K. to protest. But the moment when you’re making everybody uncomfortable, or you don’t necessarily see the measurable outcome of said protest, then it’s unlawful or it’s against what’s right.”
Democrat committee member Stacy Newman of Richmond Heights took issue with some wording in the proposal. She said, as written, it could implicate government employees on the job. She mentioned a well-publicized incident during an exchange with bill sponsor Marshall.
“As we saw in New Jersey when there was a decision to close a bridge that did everything that you just said in terms of consequence” said Newman. Marshall responded “Oh, I see, you’re referencing (New Jersey) Governor (Chris) Christie”.
Traffic became severely clogged after workers were instructed to set up cones on a busy New Jersey bridge in 2013. An ensuing controversy has dogged Christie since.
A number of law enforcement organizations testified in favor of the measure, including the Missouri State Troopers Association, Fraternal Order of Police and the Missouri Sheriff’s Association, while the American Civil Liberties Union spoke against it.
Marshall says his proposal mirrors existing laws in Washington State which criminalize the intentional obstruction of traffic, notably one in Seattle.